The only way Tom Stuifbergen could relate the reception he and his teammates from the Netherlands received when they got home was to reference soccer.
"We just arrived in Holland," he emailed, a day after helping the Dutch national team win the 2011 World Cup, "and the airport was loaded with press and fans. It was crazy. We kind of felt like the Dutch soccer team who obviously gets the most attention in Holland. At first the media didn't really care about us beating (the) U.S.A. and Puerto Rico. But when we qualified for the Final apparently the whole country was going nuts. And that showed at the arrival in Holland, which was amazing! That was probably one of the coolest things that I've witnessed with the Dutch baseball team.
"I also hope because of this media attention that more kids are gonna play baseball in stead of soccer; that way we could become a bigger country in baseball overall."
The World Cup is not the biggest baseball stage in the world, and few fans in North America took note of the event that took place in the first two weeks of October in Panama. (UPDATE: In fact, it appears to have been the last World Cup.) But thanks to Stuifbergen and other pitchers such as 36-year-old veteran Rob Cordemans, the Netherlands won its first major international tournament, beating Cuba 2-1 in the final and becoming the first European nation to win the World Cup.
Cuba earned the silver medal for the third straight World Cup after winning every nine consecutive events from 1984-2005. The United States won the '07 and '09 Cups, but the '11 USA Baseball club had to rally from a 4-4 start, winning its last three games to earn a spot in the medal round. Its bronze-medal game with Canada was rained out, and the teams were named co-bronze medallists, though only Canada's players got actual bronze medals.
Canada then took home a fine consolation prize two weeks later, winning the Pan American Games gold medal for the country's first championship in a major international baseball tournament. Canada beat the U.S. in a taut championship game in Guadalajara, Mexico, winning 2-1 to claim the eight-team event of North American and Caribbean clubs. The field included seven World Cup teams—including Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela—plus host Mexico. Lefthander Andrew Albers (Twins) struck out eight in 6 2/3 innings, reliever Scott Richmond (Blue Jays) got the final seven outs, and Jimmy Van Ostrand (Astros) hit a two-run double in the sixth inning that held up for Canada's first gold.
Since professionals began playing in international baseball tournaments in 1998, 10 nations have won tournaments of some import in the 13 years of the current era of professionals in international play: Australia (1999 Intercontinental Cup), Canada, Cuba, Dominican Republic (2010 Pan Am/World Cup qualifier), Italy (European championships, most recently in 2010); Japan (two World Baseball Classics), the Netherlands, South Korea (2008 Olympics), Taiwan (Asia Games, most recently in 2009); and the United States. How many sports can match that track record?
The Dutch had never finished higher than fourth in World Cup history previously. They can thank pitchers such as Stuifbergen, who finished his 2011 season with Triple-A Rochester in the Twins system, and Cordemans, who played at Indian River (Fla.) JC in 1997 and has had a long career at the front of his nation's national team rotation. They can also thank Robert Eenhoorn, the former Yankees and Angels shortstop who is now the technical director of the Netherlands baseball federation. Essentially, he's the team's general manager, and he put together a program and a team that has blended players both from the Netherlands' European mainland and its Caribbean island protectorates into a cohesive unit.
"We have young guys and veterans and I think the whole combination of the team made us good," said Stuifbergen, . "We had a good team chemistry and lots of talent. Also one of the reasons that we won the World Cup is because of the winning flow. We won all the four practice games and we kept that mood into the tournament."
Dutch coach Brian Farley, a Vanderbilt alum and native of Massachusetts, successfully piloted a team with two consistent offensive threats—veteran outfielder Bryan Engelhardt, who plays in Holland's domestic league and homered off Team USA's Matt Lindstrom in the 2009 World Baseball Classic; and first baseman Curt Smith, formerly of Vermont and the Cardinals farm system and most recently with independent Lincoln of the American Association—to 11 victories in 12 games. Engelhardt hit .425 with 10 RBIs to pace the offense, while Smith hit .375 with three homers and a tournament-best 13 RBIs.
Prospects DiDi Gregorius (Reds) and brothers Sharlon (Giants) and Jonathan Schoop (Orioles) gave the Dutch an athletic infield defensively, backing the pitching staff led by Stuifbergen, Cordemans, Juan Carlos Sulbaran (Reds) and ex-big leaguer Shairon Martis (Nationals). A powerful Cuban lineup that hit .328 overall in 12 tournament games had just 10 hits in 58 at-bats in two losses to the Dutch. Stuifbergen shut out Puerto Rico and South Korea and got a save against Taiwan en route to tossing 17 scoreless innings overall. Cordemans won all three of his starts, beating Japan, host Panama and then the Cubans, pitching into the eighth inning in the gold-medal game.
"His nickname is Cordeboss," Stuifbergen said. "He is a machine, turning 37 later this year and stopping Cuba in the final is impressive. He is the most experienced one on the team and I can't believe he never played (professionally) in the USA. His changeup is probably the nastiest one I've ever seen."
The tournament's highest-profile players, outside of the Cubans who aren't allowed to play professionally, were non-40-man roster prospects such as Germany's Max Kepler (Twins), Team USA's Brett Jackson (Cubs) and Canada outfielder Tim Smith (Royals), or veterans of foreign leagues, such as Panama slugger Fernando Seguignol and ex-big league all-star Tony Bautista (Dominican Republic), who now plays in Mexico.
"The level of play in these international events is hit or miss," said Smith, who played at Arizona State and has reached Double-A. "One day you can be facing a 10-year big league vet on the mound, the next day a guy that has never signed a contract. Overall it is pretty solid play. The majority of teams have lots of players who are current or at one point in time Double-A or Triple-A level. The Cuban team obviously (is) ridiculously strong year in and year out. I'd guarantee half of them would have many years of big league time under their belt if their situation was different."
Team USA had a solid roster with prospects such as outfielders Brett Jackson (Cubs) and A.J. Pollock (Diamondbacks) and lefthander Drew Smyly (Tigers), but catcher Travis d'Arnaud (Blue Jays) was forced out by a thumb injury that required surgery and left the team with only one catcher, Tuffy Gosewisch (Phillies). The Netherlands (7-5 loss), Canada (6-1) and Cuba (8-7) thumped American starters Matt Shoemaker (Angels), Todd Redmond (Braves) and Jeffrey Marquez (Yankees), the last loss leaving Team USA at 4-4.
But Team USA held Australia and South Korea to a run apiece, and the Americans needed to beat Venezuela to earn a medal-round spot. Former Cubs farmhand Jose Yepez held the U.S. to one run in the first six innings, but the Americans rallied for six runs in the seventh and final frame after Yepez walked the leadoff man. Shortstop Jordy Mercer (Pirates) capped the rally with a tie-breaking three-run homer, and veteran minor leaguer Scott Patterson (Mariners) got the save for what proved to be a medal-clinching victory.
Canada went 8-3 to earn its share of the bronze, led by Smith and Albers (Twins), who worked 15 scoreless innings in a dual role as a spot-starter and reliever. The Canadian team resembled the Dutch club in being a roster of professionals that came together on the field quickly and responded well to the tournament format again in Mexico for its Pan Am title.
Cuba used to be the nation that did that best, but the Cubans have won only one major international event—the 2010 Intercontinental Cup, in which the U.S. did not participate—since claiming its last World Cup in 2005. That coincides well with the 2003 defection of Jose Contreras and the aging of former national team aces Pedro Luis Lazo and Norge Vera. Cuba has not developed a next wave of arms to replace them or defectors from Livan and Orlando Hernandez in the late 1990s to Aroldis Chapman, who pitched in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
That was most evident in a 12-10 Pan Am Games loss to the U.S. in the semifinal, the high point for the American team and the nadir of Cuban international baseball. The U.S. jumped out to a 12-2 lead and held on as Patterson got the final four outs. Cuba had won the last 10 Pan Ams dating back to 1971, winning against amateurs and pros alike. Contreras' signature victory for the Cuban national team may have been his complete-game gem against Team USA's pros in Winnipeg in the 1999 Pan Ams, which he threw on one day's rest. A dozen years later, Cuba has no Conteras, no ace, and it shows.
"The Dutch had access to a lot of their best players, but not all of them," Red Sox scout Craig Shipley said. "The U.S., the Dominican, Venezuela, they obviously did not have access to their best players, because they're in the major leagues. Cuba is the only country that does . . .
"Now most of the clubs that participate, the Aussies, the Dutch, whoever, have players who have played professional baseball. The intimidation factor that Cuba used to have is totally gone, especially on the mound. They don't have a lot of pitching talent right now."
A dozen years of professionals in international baseball and a decline in Cuban pitching fortunes has leveled the playing field. As the Netherlands and Canada showed, anyone can win in international baseball.